Finding Fantasy

In the Loop With Owen Pallett

I’m crowded with half a dozen people in the control room of Different Fur Studios in San Francisco’s Mission District. We’re looking through two panes of glass at Toronto-based musician and composer Owen Pallett, better known as Final Fantasy. It’s like looking through the glass of an oven door. The magenta glow from an overhead light bounces off the studio’s wooden floors and illuminates Pallett’s face as he plays violin and sings into a microphone. A camera crew will tape an in-studio performance in about an hour, and he’s warming up with songs from the latest Final Fantasy record Heartland. Pallett has patient eyes, and his focused expression perfectly matches the ethereal flow of his music.

Though structurally and melodically complex, Pallett’s music sounds effortless. He’s a classically trained composer and a skilled musician. He makes it look easy. But talking to Pallett about Final Fantasy, I start to feel bogged down on his behalf. The music relies on a looping system consisting of a large panel of MIDI footswitches that run into a computer where he uses open source software, much of which he completely reprogrammed, to stack layer upon layer of violin and keyboard in real time. “I’m always working, but it’s not necessarily work anybody’s going to ever hear,” he says. “I spent about six months learning the software and putting the system together.” The resulting record, Heartland is the lush payoff for this effort. Pallett’s subtle, soulful vocals meander over arrangements that sound like sorrowful folk played by severe string quartets.

Somebody in the control room asks me, “Are you one of the people from the Twitter contest?” I’m not sure what this means. The sound check ends and Pallett rushes off to take a shower before a small audience of fans is shuffled into the studio and carefully seated on the floor in front of Pallett’s gear.

When he returns, the air in the studio is pierced by a disquieting anticipation. The fans are uncomfortable. The studio engineer is clamoring that he’s picking up interference from someone’s iPhone. But as soon as Pallett launches into the first single off Heartland, everyone relaxes, forgets their role, and lets the sounds paint on their minds.

– Mario Aguilar

Photography by Ryan Pfluger